I just finished reading Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. It is the story of an anthropologist and physician, Paul Farmer, who works relentlessly for better health care and population health in underdeveloped countries.
Towards the end of the book Kidder asks Farmer a question that he has asked before. Basically, why he continues to fight for what sometimes looks like a losing cause.
Farmer says, “I have fought for my whole life a long defeat…… I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory……
You know people from our background – like you, … like me – we’re used to being on a victory team, actually what we’re really trying do in PIH (Partners in Health) is to make common cause with the losers. Those are two very different things. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.”
A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with a new colleague about my decision to remain in health care. I admit, I thought it would feel better if I was doing something creative and fun, something that could produce joy and fulfillment. I was disenchanted with health care because I felt the needle wasn’t moving. I thought we were just t spinning our wheels.
I see that I wanted to see a victory, to know that our work was making an impact. But I understand that I was being led to stay in the health care fray because I know it well and I am using my talents to contribute to an agenda that may not produce significant results in my lifetime.
Paul Farmer has inspired me to lock arms with him and the people all over the world who are focusing on the work, the process, despite whether we are losing. I want to rid myself of the idea that victory is the ultimate goal. Rather, I want to keep believing I am still involved in health care because I want to help and I have been led to contribute in this arena even though I thought I wanted out.
And honestly, I am happy here, working hard to help improve the health of underserved Missourians. I know I am in good company in this work, and that is gratifying. I am glad to be back and fully engaged in the work, whether it is considered a ‘long defeat’ or not.